Outlook Group was founded in 1977 as an offshoot by a few visionary previous employees of a large printing company in Wisconsin. With the goal to provide high-quality services to their former employer and capitalize on unmet needs in the industry, the company provided a source to print. Later on, it incorporated die cutting, and the business truly took off.
The privately held company went public in the ‘80s as Outlook Group expanded and moved into the trading card industry. The previous employer of Outlook Group’s founders chose not to partner with a startup company that eventually created the Trivial Pursuit board game, so they recommended Outlook Group to that startup as an alternative.
Outlook’s work in the trading card sector encompassed printing the cards, collating them, and even manufacturing the overwrap using flexible packaging. A further expansion of its services into labels was a strategic decision, driven by the company's unwavering commitment to meet the evolving needs of their clients.
From jack-of-all-trades to master of a niche industry
In 1994, the trading card industry experienced a severe setback due to that year’s baseball strike. As a result, Outlook found itself with $36 million in long-term debt and no immediate business opportunities. This crisis became a turning point in their journey.
The company welcomed a turnaround expert who helped rescue the business from the brink of bankruptcy. This transformation led them to refocus on their core competence: packaging. By shedding non-core businesses and embracing contract packaging and contract manufacturing, they rebounded and thrived.
“We had the makings of a contract packaging, fulfillment-type business model, being able to print, package, ship, and manage the supply chain. We drove out costs and labor where we could and added efficiency to it,” says Tim Traub, director of integrated packaging solutions at Outlook Group.
Outlook Group took its skill in printed packaging and incorporated it into engineering and filling a wide variety of containers, from flexible packaging to jars. This capability, Traub says, has differentiated the company within the contract packaging industry and landed them many long-term customers.
Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies often outsource new products to evaluate market performance before making long-term decisions. Outlook Group found itself adept at supporting such endeavors and recognized the opportunity to provide full-service solutions through its printing background. Traub says all but one of the company’s customers takes advantage of its vertical integration in-house printing services.
Custom engineering of structural packaging designs include printing, converting, die cutting, folding, and gluing. These services had their genesis in the trading card business thanks to the unique packaging structures on baseball card displays. Custom engineering can be done either through an established design that the customer provides or from scratch when a customer approaches the company with a product needing packaging. This allows Outlook Group to perform testing to ensure the packaging runs smoothly on its equipment as well.
A recent example came in the form of a dry shampoo and dry conditioner, packaged together but shaped differently, which resulted in banging and denting each other in transportation. Outlook Group designed a card to add protection that accommodates both can shapes, ensuring they did not so much as rotate, within a three-week span.
Another package redesign within the over-the-counter pharmaceuticals industry entailed a need for the package to fit a very specific piece of equipment. This required modifications, but due to time demands, the packaging could not be so altered that it had to be recertified through the lengthy FDA approval process again.
“Between my engineering team and our structural design team, they said, ‘Hey, we can stay within the FDA mandate, we can make some very minor modifications to the carton and that's not going to cause it to be recertified,’” Traub says. “So we were able to do that and make it fit the piece of equipment that we needed to fit. Things like that go on all the time.”
Streamlined supply chain, VMI, and e-commerce
Such services add convenience to the process as well. Turnaround times for projects decrease as the supply chain gets streamlined and more of the process is done in-house at Outlook Group’s facility. It shaves off soft costs such as freight and eliminates the supplier waiting game. Traub notes that this convenience benefits both the customers and Outlook Group.
The company also offers supply chain procurement and management. Their innovative approach trims traditional supply chain touchpoints from 11 to three, reducing costs, streamlining logistics, and enhancing efficiency. By taking control of the supply chain, they simplify their clients' operations, allowing them to focus on selling products while Outlook Group manages the rest.
“Our job is to look at what that total landed cost is, take into account all the management time, reduce it for them, and allow us to be profitable, but allow our customers to be even more profitable,” says Traub.
Outlook Group further offers a Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI) program, which has allowed the company to run a VMI for a label customer with 2600 SKUs. E-commerce is another noteworthy client-centric service that has become an integral part of the modern retail landscape. For one customer, Outlook Group produces, prints, and folds, and envelopes sewing patterns, and sends them off through e-commerce channels. These 6000 SKUs are handled on the customer’s equipment in its own facility. Outlook Group sends off 400-700 orders weekly, and other industries that the company provides e-commerce services for include canned goods.
Sustainability and efficiency
Outlook Group seeks to champion sustainability in packaging. Its sophisticated recycling and waste program results in less than 2% of manufactured products going to landfills across all of its printing platforms. The company recycles or repurposes 98% of its materials, from pallets to label matrix and paperboard, to further reduce waste and promote sustainability. Outlook Group considers itself on the leading edge of sustainable materials with biodegradable plastics for flexible packaging and recycled content among other solutions.
Using a vacuum system, the waste matrix gets stripped away from products and materials to be shredded and containerized as fuel pellets. Polyester in flexible packaging also gets recycled also with recyclable liner materials.
The company has won the Business Friend of the Environment twice in the state of Wisconsin and aims to win it a third time. PMMI has also recognized Outlook Group as an environmentally friendly organization.
Traub notes that sustainable practices extend into labor and freight, helping customers streamline their supply chain, as well as production efficiency through automation.
Outlook Group has purchased two more robots in recent years, which has allowed Outlook to take three workers each off of two lines. Now, the company has one large Motoman robot, used to place and remove custom carriers for feeding product—purchased in the early 2000's for palletizing originally—one Fanuc robot palletizer, and two Universal robots. The first has a 7-axis end of arm and is used to pick and place product from a pallet into a cartoning line, and the second is used to place finished product into master cartons. The end of arm tooling was built in house and picks up 60 cartons per cycle.
The company plans to continue purchasing robots and cobots to streamline production and to mitigate labor shortage issues, replacing menial tasks so that employees can work in other areas with more fulfilling jobs.
A cleanroom mentality and employee engagement
Outlook Group seeks to avoid complacency to ensure best practices and safe product, especially related to over-the-counter (OTC) and medical device work orders. The company emphasizes the importance of maintaining stringent quality control, a cleanroom mentality, and building a robust quality system. Transparency, continuous improvement, and readiness for unannounced audits by regulatory authorities reinforce Outlook Group’s commitment to quality.
Though none of its rooms are technically cleanroom, they are all GMP-certified and employees wear white smocks to solidify the cleanroom mindset while working with class II medical devices.
More than just training employees to be efficient and avoid complacency, Outlook Group believes in getting employees involved and keeping them engaged in the process. Traub says one of the largest improvements the company has made in productivity for a particular medical device was suggested by an employee who worked the line daily. The suggestion resulted in a frequently replaced feeding part being made differently and more durable. The $10,000 or more spent every six months to replace those parts within the feeding mechanism are now used elsewhere and throughput is up by about 15%.
“The employees, they see it every day, they touch it every single day. So having that communication cycle, the transparency and the willingness to listen to them and make sure that you give them the tools that they need to be successful is key,” says Traub
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